Friday, August 29, 2008

Puerto Madero's Bridge to the Future

One highlight of the Buenos Aires revival has been the reclamation of Puerto Madero, the riverside docklands that was shuttered by the military dictatorship of 1976-83. Since the 1990s, the red brick warehouses that stood empty for decades have come to house lofts, restaurants, shops and offices, its waterfront promenade is a favorite with pedestrians (part of the highly entertaining con-man film Nine Queens was shot here), and a former rubbish dump has become a haven for hikers, cyclists, and wildlife.

New high-rises are also making Puerto Madero one of the costliest and exclusive barrios in the city, but its open spaces make it an inviting destination for porteños of all social and economic classes. One of its welcoming symbols is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's Puente de la Mujer, a pedestrian suspension bridge that swings open to allow the passage of yachts and other vessels between the northernmost basins of the old port area. This week's New Yorker magazine contains a lengthy profile of Calatrava that's must reading for anyone interested in its background, though the bridge itself gets only a brief mention.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's the Huaso

At Chile's mid-September independence days, the huaso - Chile's rough equivalent of the Argentine gaucho - is a presence even on metropolitan Santiago's Plaza de Armas, as pictured here. Like the gaucho, today's huaso is more symbol than reality, but still a cornerstone of Chilean identity.

In response to Monday's quiz, I had half a dozen correct responses and, unfortunately, the first correct answerer was unable to take advantage of the trip to Santiago. Thus I've kept a list of runners-up and, if the second person I've contacted can't take advantage of the free flights to Santiago, I'll move on to the next one. It would be a shame if the tickets had to go to waste so, if you answered the quiz, check your mailbox regularly to see if your position has improved.

Monday, August 25, 2008

September in Chile Could Be Yours

Thursday September 18 is Chile's independence day, Friday the 19th is Armed Forces Day, and with the ensuing weekend this will mean a four-day celebration of Chile's nationhood in anticipation of the 2010 bicentennial. For most Chileans it will mean dancing cueca, gobbling empanadas at free-standing fondas in the parks, sipping non-alcoholic mote con huesillo (a drink of barleycorns and dried peaches) , and quaffing chicha (a mildly alcoholic drink fermented from apples or grapes). Symbols of Chilean identity are everywhere.

Being There! - or, Your Chance to Attend
As it happens, I have two standby tickets to Santiago on LAN Airlines, expiring at the end of September, that I will be unable to use. Thus I am holding a contest in which the prize is greater than the guidebooks I've offered before - the winner will get two round-trip tickets from any of LAN's U.S. gateways (New York, Miami, or Los Angeles) to Santiago.

There are some conditions: the principal one is that round-trip travel must be completed by the end of September. Second, it also depends on space available, so the winner may need some flexibility in travel dates. Third, it does not include airport taxes or the Chilean arrival tax. If you can meet those conditions, please answer the question in the following section.

Question of the Day!
In neighboring Argentina, the gaucho is a national symbol, but Chile has its own iconic horseman (two of whom are pictured here at a rodeo in the southern town of Palena). The question is simple: what is the Spanish word for Chile's counterpart to the gaucho?

The first correct answer sent to my email in the header above will win the tickets. In this case, previous quiz winners are eligible, as I want a winner as quickly as possible. If nobody uses them, the tickets simply expire.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rebuilding Chaitén, Rescuing the Fu

As the southern hemisphere spring approaches, the Chilean town of Chaitén remains off limits after the eruption of its namesake volcano in May, and that is likely to affect travel along the northern Carretera Austral for the entire season. Still under tons of ash, most of its buildings severely damaged by flood (as pictured here), the town seems unlikely to be rebuilt at its present location.

Under normal circumstances, Chaitén is the port for auto/passenger ferries from Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé but, given the volcano's continuing activity and the massive cleanup still necessary, it seems equally improbable that ferry service will be available this season except for the Navimag ferries from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. This, of course, deposits travelers at the highway's approximate midpoint, so that it will be impossible to travel the length of the Carretera Austral without backtracking or, alternatively, entering via the Argentine province of Chubut to Futaleufú.

Futaleufú, of course, has its own problems. While not so directly affected by the volcano, it lay in the path of prevailing westerlies that deposited huge amounts of ash even though the town was not completely evacuated. A recent photo essay in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín depicts the accumulations of ash, the need for masks and even respirators to venture outside, and the impact on domestic animals, whose feed and water have been contaminated.

Futaleufú, of course, takes its name from the Río Futaleufú, one of the world's top whitewater rivers, and several international adventure travel companies have camps for rafters and kayakers in the vicinity. In last month's National Geographic Adventure, Jon Bowermaster summarizes the situation in an ecological and economic context in which Chile, a country dependent on mining and desperate for non-petroleum sources of energy, could use the image of a destroyed ecosystem to justify a huge hydroelectric project - similar to the one that drowned the legendary Río Biobío in the 1990s.

Ecosystems, though, can be resilient, and recovery from the 1994 eruption of Volcán Hudson, near the town of Chile Chico south of Coyhaique, was surprisingly quick. Bowermaster quotes whitewater operator Eric Hertz, of Earth River Expeditions, to the effect that if the 4,000 anticipated rafters and kayakers don't show, the "confusion over the river’s actual condition 'will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano.'"

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Judgment in Chile

Outside Santiago's Palacio de la Moneda, a larger than life monument to the late President Salvador Allende stands at the southeast corner of the Plaza de la Constitución. Only a decade ago, before the arrest and detention of former dictator General Augusto Pinochet in London changed Chilean politics so dramatically, this would have been unthinkable.

About a month ago, I reviewed a book by Chile's United Nations ambassador Heraldo Muñoz on his experiences during the Pinochet dictatorship of 1973-1990. I generally don't like to dwell on topics like Pinochet, if only because he is such an infamous stereotype of the region, which deserves to escape the stigma of brutal military strongmen. The other night, though, I watched a PBS documentary called The Judge and the General, by Elizabeth Farnsworth and Patricio Lanfranco, that adds something new to the debates.

Farnsworth and Lanfranco's film focuses on a single individual, the relatively conservative but open-minded judge Juan Guzmán, and his painstakingly incorruptible investigation into Pinochet's culpability for deaths and disappearances after the 1973 coup that overthrew Allende. By the time Pinochet died, two years ago, Guzmán's indictments had so discredited the dictator that, after Pinochet's funeral, the dictator's family had to cremate him and hide his remains instead of building a monumental crypt - making Pinochet, in a sense, the last disappeared person. Allende, by contrast, has a conspicuous public monument.

The film will also screen this weekend at the Santiago International Film Festival, followed by the Los Angeles Latino International Film Festival from September 12-19, and the Festival of Liberties in Brussels, October 16-26.

In the interests of full disclosure, I know Patricio Lanfranco slightly, as he owns a lodge called Refugio Tinquilco at Parque Nacional Huerquehue, in the vicinity of Pucón. I have an even more tenuous link to Elizabeth Farnsworth, as I once batted against her son Sam in a pickup baseball game. Against Sam, who is 30 years younger than I and throws upwards of 80 mph, I was lucky to make any sort of contact.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Steppe-ing Across Patagonian Borders

A couple months ago, I wrote a post about the near-war between Argentina and Chile in 1978. Last week, in a sort of followup, I finally watched the DVD of Chilean director Alex Bowen's film Mi Mejor Enemigo (My Best Enemy), based on a real incident in which Argentine and Chilean patrols come face to face on the featureless Patagonian steppe, unsure of which side of the border they're on.

In pointing out such absurdities, the film is a comedy of sorts - in one scene, the Chileans think they've spotted the enemy, only to peer through the binoculars at a troop of guanacos like the one pictured here. When the two groups finally do encounter each other, it's still not a shooting war and, when one Chilean soldier is injured in an accident, the Argentine commander provides him penicillin to treat the infection. With that starting point, they reach a tenuous but respectful modus vivendi, sharing a barbecued lamb, the Argentines showcasing their tango steps and the Chileans dancing cueca.

In fact, the film's very title is playful - a pun on mi mejor amigo (my best friend). That said, even though a last-minute papal settlement avoids war, the movie is not without tragedy. Still, it's a measure of how much matters have improved in the last three decades that, as the final credits roll, we see that both countries' armies collaborated on the film.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Argentina's Political Disneyland

Cynics might suggest that all of Argentina is a political amusement park, but this post's starting point is the República de los Niños (pictured here), a children's theme park near the Buenos Aires provincial capital of La Plata. The park opened in late 1951, less than a year before the death of Eva Perón, who was one of its major promoters.

Erected on the site of an expropriated British golf course, República de los Niños was a political project from the first, and Peronist governor Domingo Mercante carried it out. Its concept was that any underprivileged child could participate in the scale model legislature and other institutions, and aspire to visit the Taj Mahal and other global landmarks. In the process, of course, that child would become a committed Peronist.

I've visited República de los Niños several times and, while reviewing the park's website and other online information for a new Argentina guidebook that I'm preparing for National Geographic Traveler, I noticed several references to a visit by Walt Disney in 1953. According to these accounts, Disney used the park as at least a partial template for Disneyland, which opened in 1955.

In 1941, Disney and a group from his studio had taken a ten-week goodwill tour of southern South America, as a part of U.S. president Franklin D. Roosevelt's Good Neighbor Policy. I had never heard of any 1953 visit, and it seemed improbable that such a visit could have affected a large project that must have been well underway by then. To clarify matters, I phoned Disney archivist Dave Smith in Burbank, who checked the records and told me that Walt's only other Latin American visits had been to Mexico, in 1953 and 1955. He never returned to Argentina, though Argentine gaucho caricaturist Florencio Molina Campos did work on several Disney cartoons and, says Smith, gave one of his paintings to Disney.

Smith also surprised me with the news that Disney's 1941 trip to the Southern Cone is now the subject of a documentary, Walt & El Grupo, by Theodore Thomas - son of pioneer Disney animator Frank Thomas. The movie has been shown at film festivals in San Francisco and Seattle, and is due to screen at the Rio de Janeiro International Film Festival late next month.

Update: Shortly after I posted this, director Ted Thomas informed me by email that the film will have commercial release after the Rio festival.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

We Have a Winner!

In response to Thursday's quiz, Roger Emanuels of Santa Cruz, California, correctly identified the characteristic wines of Argentina: the red Malbec (from Mendoza province) and the dry but fruity white Torrontés (from Salta province). He wins a copy of Moon Handbooks Argentina.

A minor grape in its Bordeaux homeland, where it's usually used in blends, Malbec has become Argentina's signature wine export. Mendoza's dry climate and high heat bring it to perfection.

Torrontés, by contrast, is a high altitude grape that benefits from warm days and cool nights to reach its peak, so to speak - at Bodega Colomé, near the hamlet of Molinos, the vines thrive at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, though one Uruguayan grower cultivates them only slightly above sea level. Most of the best Torrontés comes from slightly lower altitudes near the town of Cafayate. One enthusiastic French grower I met there suggested that consuming Torrontés was like "drinking the grape." At home, it's our preferred white.

In North America, Malbec is now pretty easy to find, Torrontés rather less so, but both are worth seeking out. Meanwhile, be on the lookout for future contests and giveaways on this blog.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

From Chile, with Carménère

In the 19th century, the red varietal Carménère virtually disappeared in its Bordeaux homeland due to phylloxera, an aphid-like insect that fed on the roots of the grapevine. In the early 1990s, though, a French enologist inspecting Merlot plantings around Santiago discovered that, for over 150 years, Chilean growers had been confusing the two varietals and that, in Chile's biogeographical insularity, phylloxera had never been a problem.

Since then, Chilean growers have turned to Carménère as their signature varietal, a unique wine that's grown in much smaller quantities in just a few other areas: Italy, California, and Washington state. Still, it's often undervalued, as three articles in the wine section of last week's San Francisco Chronicle suggest. The longest piece is a summary of Carménère's history and current status; the second is a review of various Chilean vintages; and the third provides recipes with which Carménère would be an ideal pairing.

Carménère is almost always in our own home wine supply, but it's good to see this underappreciated wine getting some well-deserved respect. It's both good and affordable.

Win This Book!
Several weeks ago, I held an online contest to give away a copy of Moon Handbooks Chile. In conjunction with today's post, I have a another quiz in which the prize is either MH Chile or, alternatively, Moon Handbooks Argentina.

This is a two-part question: 1) name Argentina's two signature varietal wines, one red and one white; 2) name the Argentine province or locality best known for each. Please send your answer to the address in the header above. The previous contest's winner is not eligible this time, sorry.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Mars, This is Atacama

Last week, according to the Washington Post and many other reports, NASA scientists detected water vapor on Mars. Almost simultaneously, NASA personnel exploring the Cordillera de la Sal (pictured here), near the Chilean town of San Pedro de Atacama, also announced the discovery of water while exploring a cave in one of the world's driest deserts. The latter expedition is in fact intended to have Martian applications - if water can support life here, so goes the thinking, it might also do so in Martian caverns.

According to expedition scientist J. Judson Wynne, the Atacama water was utterly unexpected: " Why was water there? Is this merely a phenomenon related to these caves in particular? Is there some sort of moisture sink that results in the water concentrating in certain caves and not others in the Atacama Desert?" I'm surprised, though, that Wynne was so surprised - in such a vast, thinly populated place as the Atacama, where settlements have always concentrated at oases, the water table is uneven, and distribution of the Pleistocene fossil water is irregular. There are likely other similar sites, but with access too poor to support human settlement. The Atacama still holds many more secrets than any single expedition is likely to discover.
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